Continuing my review of the Metropolitan Opera’s excellent production of Tosca in the current season. This production stars, as the three leads, Sonya Yoncheva (as Floria Tosca), Željko Lučić (as Baron Scarpia), and Vittorio Grigolo (as Mario Cavaradossi).
According to wiki, critics at the time panned this work, dismissing it as a “facile melodrama with confusions of plot”. But the public knew better — this masterpiece became an instant success. In particular, the “confusion of plot” is simply libel. Many grand operas do suffer from that malady, but not this one. As I mentioned in Part I of my review, Tosca is very tightly plotted, both as to place and time. The action takes place is 3 very specific, and very real, locations; and the action from start to finish takes under 24 hours of time. Like many great works of art, Tosca’s plot is relatively simple and could actually be laid out in a few short sentences. The plot is not only simple, but also logical, almost like a detective story with a handful of clues. The only real problem is that it assumes much backstory, which is all the stuff that had to happen in the past, and offstage before that pesky curtain opens on Act I.
First a note about the demographics of the characters. Physical age is always an issue in opera. The physical performers, at this high level of the art, are normally in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and even older; but usually, in our minds eye, we are asked to subtract some years to get a better mental image of the characters they portray. In a radio interview, Sonya mentioned that the Producer/Director, Sir David McVicar, who is the brains behind this particular production, gave Sonya notes to the effect that Floria should be seen as a very young and inexperienced woman. Not some crabby aging diva, as she is often portrayed. Sonya herself is young and nice-looking, but we need to imagine a Tosca who is even younger than Sonya. So, let’s say she is around 20 years old; and her boyfriend Mario is just a couple of years older. This jibes with his youthful revolutionary passions, his romantic outbursts, and his risk-taking behavior.
I am sure all this would be better explained had I read the French play upon this opera is based (which I have not, it’s still on my to-do list), but best as I can deduce from what we have before us: Mario Cavaradossi is a young man of good birth who makes his living painting portraits and frescoes for Catholic churches. His current commission is to paint a portrait of Mary Magdalene. For a very specific church. During one of the intermissions, in a backstage interview (and by the way, these backstage nuggets alone are worth the price of admission to these Live in HD productions) Set Designer John Macfarlane explained how easy his job was to design the three sets (one set for each of the three Acts), given that these are very specific, and very real, locations in Rome. And thank goodness the Met hired Macfarlane to design these sets, based on the real locations; otherwise, we could have been stuck with one of those monstrous “modernizing” interpretations; for example, “Tristan und Isolde” set aboard a German U-boat; or a “Tosca” set in a Las Vegas nightclub of the 1950’s, or some other such nonsense.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Act I is set in a church called Sant’Andrea della Valle, which wiki dubs a “minor basilica”. owned by the religious order of the “Theatines“, whoever and whatever they are. If the word had an extra R (“TheatRines“), then I could imagine that these monks are avid theater-goers and never miss one of Tosca’s performances.
The outside of this building is said to be in the “Rococo” style, but in the opera we only see the inside. Macfarlane said that he copied, as best he could, the internal geography of this space, just having to foreshorten and transpose a few details for the stage. In particular, right at the end of Act I, the stage director needed to fit in the entire chorus plus Baron Scarpia off to the side, for the somewhat sacrireligious Te Deum scene.
In addition, the libretto lists very specific items within this space, such as the statue of the Madonna, and a private chapel owned by the family of the Marquis Attavanti. All of these objects come into play during the Scarpia-detective scene, when he deduces the fugitive Angelotti’s hiding place.
Still doing the backstory here: Somehow, we know not how or when, Mario has met and fallen in love with the famous singer Floria Tosca. We know that Toscal is the new “It” girl in Rome, in this year 1800. She is the toast of the town and has many admirers, among them Chief of Police Baron Scarpia, who is actually sort of obsessed with her. But of all her fans, La Tosca has picked only Mario Cavaradossi to be her lover. Mario owns a villa whose address he keeps private; it serves as the secret love-nest where he and Floria spend many luscious and passionate nights together. We can deduce that Mario is a decent fellow who cares about Tosca’s reputation. The fact that the address of the villa is kept private is an important plot point. Because Baron Scarpia, who is sort of an upscale Inspector Javert, will deduce that the fugitive he is hunting — a man named Cesare Angelotti — is hiding precisely at this villa; and yet nobody knows the address except for Mario and Floria. This will force Scarpia to do what he loves to do anyhow: Manipulate Floria and torture Mario, in order to get them to spill the location.
One thing we do know is that the villa is not all that far from the Sant’Andrea church. Because when time comes for Mario to hide Cesare, he just tells the latter to follow him from the church down a back pathway to the villa.
Also in the backstory: At one point in his political career, Cesare Angelotti actually wielded power in Rome. As one of the seven Consuls of the Republic that had been set up by Napoleon Bonaparte on the points of bayonets. Then Napoleon sort of threw his Italian allies under the bus. Napoleon did what Napoleon does: He took his army and retreated, leaving his friends high and dry. The Republic was overthrown, bad men like Baron Scarpia returned to power, and Angelotti was tossed into prison. Into the very (real-life) prison, the Castel Sant’Angelo, where, in Act III (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Mario and Floria meet their own untimely ends. Here wiki explains some of the historical context, and that the fictional Angelotti was probably based on an actual person, named Liborio Angelucci:
Italy had long been divided into a number of small states, with the Pope in Rome ruling the Papal States in central Italy. Following the French Revolution, a French army under Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796, entering Rome almost unopposed on 11 February 1798 and establishing a republic there. This republic was ruled by seven consuls; in the opera this is the office formerly held by Angelotti, whose character may be based on the real-life consul Liborio Angelucci. In September 1799 the French, who had protected the republic, withdrew from Rome. As they left, troops of the Kingdom of Naples occupied the city.
Somehow, we know not how but we do know when, Angelotti made his escape from the Castel prison. We deduce that the escape was engineered by his sister, the Marchessa Attavanti, whose family, as was mentioned, owns a private chapel within the Sant’Andrea church.
As the curtain rises on Act I, Angelotti has just escaped from prison and made a beeline to Sant’Andrea. His sister has somehow instructed him where to look for the key (tucked under the feet of the Madonna statue) to her private chapel. Within the chapel Cesare will find a suit of woman’s clothing, a veil and a fan. Which is to be his disguise when he escapes from Rome. One other thing we learn is that the Marchessa is a blonde, blue-eyed beauty. She has been sitting in the church from time to time, praying for her brother (and setting up the chapel with the disguise, etc.), in the course of which she inadvertently caught the eye of painter Cavaradossi, who is secretly using her as the model for his portrait of Mary Magdalene. All of which is quite unfortunate, as we shall see. The Marchessa’s plot to free her brother was a good one, and might have just worked, were it not for that pesky painter and his jealous diva lover….
[to be continued]